By Wendy Lack
In a letter published in today’s East Bay Times, former grand juror Michael Moore shares his perspective on California’s growing pension crisis:
Dan Borenstein is absolutely correct; California’s public pension systems carry huge unfunded debts and cry out for fair and sensible reform. (“Gov. Brown’s pension reform effort is coming up very short,” Feb. 5).
The Contra Costa civil grand jury, on which I served for two years, issued two important reports on needed pension reform in our county. Each report recommended that the Board of Supervisors seek legal review of a peculiar California court doctrine that blocks meaningful pension reform. The doctrine has prevented the county from negotiating with its employees to reduce the level of pension benefits they would earn in future years. That gives pension benefits a privileged status in collective bargaining because all other elements of employee compensation are negotiated for each contract period.
The phrase “peculiar California court doctrine” refers to the interpretation by some courts that public employee pension benefits can never be reduced. This rigid view of employee rights contributes to the county’s financial strain, as Moore observes:
How big is the problem? The county carries more than $1 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and the 2014-2015 grand jury pension report found that a modest reduction in future pension benefit accruals could save the county nearly $100 million a year.
Finally, Moore calls on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors to support pension reform:
Two appellate courts have now opened a window for review of the peculiar California pension doctrine. The county’s Board of Supervisors should seize the opportunity to advance fair and sensible pension reform by filing briefs with the California Supreme Court in support of the appellate court rulings.
We agree with Moore, and go one step further. We call for elected officials throughout Contra Costa, including those in the county, cities, schools, fire districts, utility and other special districts to actively support the appellate court rulings challenging the unworkable California rule.
Eliminating the California rule is the only way for local agencies to adjust pension benefits to reasonable levels taxpayers can afford. Failure to support the appellate court decisions challenging the California rule sends a message to taxpayers that their elected officials oppose common sense reform.